Mother Sorrow: workshop December 9th

I was privileged to observe an open rehearsal of a new creation titled “Mother Sorrow.” The creative team is large, but I should mention director & choreographer Jennifer Nichols, Composer and music director Adam Scime and librettist (combining new words with existing text from the Pergolesi Stabat Mater) David James Brock. We saw performances from a very capable team including dancers Evelyn Hart, Nicholas McClung, Tyler Gledhill, Jarrett Siddall, Brayden Cairns, Rodney Diverlus, soprano Lindsay McIntyre, counter tenor Christian Masucci Facchini, and a baroque ensemble including harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger and a string quartet: Cristina Zacharias, Patricia Ahern, Brandon Chui & Keiran Campbell. I hope my descriptions don’t dishonour what they have been making. We saw some remarkable choreography, heard some beautiful music, and discovered something new created from something old.

I was seated among a small group of invited guests. Gianmarco Segato was beside me.

I was one of the fortunate ones to get a program that included explanations. When you’re seeing & hearing something new, it’s sometimes puzzling, difficult to understand what the piece aims to do, alongside what it’s actually doing. I make that distinction between aims & actuality because that’s arguably one of the chief tasks of a critic. No matter what I think the piece is doing, we should try to understand what it’s aiming to do. Clearly this project is doing something quite original, and has the decency to explain itself for us.

The first two pages explain a great deal of what was presented to us yesterday. The procedures in play are complicated, but only important if you’re a nerd trying to understand everything they’re doing. If one simply watches and listens they can revel in the beautiful music and the lovely movements. There’s lots to enjoy.

I’m currently thinking a lot about theatre history and criticism:
a- after reading Simon Banks’ excellent history of Opera,
b- after seeing & responding to Red Velvet at Crow’s Theatre, a meditation of theatre history if ever there was one. Spoiler alert (given that there’s still a week left of this excellent show): while the theatres were jammed full for the two performances by Ira Aldridge, the first black man to portray Othello onstage in London, in 1833, he was not permitted beyond that. A series of behind the scenes machinations were at least partially triggered by critics’ notices. Whether the critics reflected the racism of the time or only served as a pretense isn’t clear (is it ever?). The point is, until the advent of recording technologies, theatre history was entirely in the hands of the eye-witnesses. Critics were the ones whose observations have lasted until now, even if (ha ha ha) they may not always be reliable.

So that’s why I took this very seriously. I am not sure I fully appreciate what they have accomplished, not daring to say too much. I don’t know the Pergolesi Stabat Mater (having heard it awhile back but not having studied it at all). I know the Rossini a wee bit, having sung the tenor solo “cuius animam” (and no I no longer have the high notes to sing it). I re-read the text as preparation.

I was very intrigued by some of the text from David James Brock, There’s some new spoken text that makes a fascinating kind of gloss on the old work, reminding me of old biblical texts that might include commentary in the margin beside the text. It’s the medieval version of metatext. There is a quality to some of this writing reminding me of the multiverse, as though there are different realities implicit within The Bible stories of Mary and Jesus, perhaps implicit in the multiple versions we encounter (such as the four Gospels). It’s powerfully suggestive without seeming to deconstruct or fight with the original. I use that modern word but want to emphasize that it’s not modern, not anachronistic, or fighting the ancient quality of the Biblical story. There are overtones of something very spiritual, as though we might be watching Mary encountering ghostly or angelic versions of her son, especially when we include the different bodies performing, multiple persons to portray a single character (a strategy i really love). I am reminded of a medieval gloss because it seems to exist in parallel, like a meta-reality or commentary, rather than in any sort of opposition or competition with the original.

There are advantages and disadvantages in the baroque and classical period, when you have numbers / segmented construction. While a storyline gets broken up in opera by this kind of construction, it’s apt for a mass such as a Stabat Mater, a Requiem or a prayer text. While the back & forth dynamic between recitative and aria interrupts the staging of a story and interrupts characters –who have arias or ensembles to reflect on parts of their story—that’s not a problem in a mass such as a Requiem, a Stabat Mater or indeed, an oratorio such as Messiah. When we are meditating or of a prayerful mind it’s a whole different kind of presentation, and not at all a problem to have the work segmented. Stabat Mater is a series of moments, a series of meditations or prayers like stained glass images or paintings. I’m recalling the choice by Opera Atelier’s artistic director Marshall Pynkoski to follow the poses and implicit movement vocabulary of the baroque images from paintings; they defended it at a lecture by professor Benoit Bolduc (formerly of University of Toronto, now in NY as far as I know). Or think of the way we look at stained glass, that encourage a genuinely symbolic understanding of stories and Biblical personages. We’re in the realm of stasis and frozen poses rather than naturalistic story-telling. The show-off aspect of baroque singing fits this idea really well, so that we decorate/embellish the static meditations of the moment. No wonder Messiah is so popular, as it’s perfect in its construction, as a reflection of the Biblical texts. To add dance to this seems like the most natural and organic thing in the world.

I mention all this because parts of this workshop are baroque in sound, while sometimes the texture deconstructs that surface, with a series of modern explorations of the story and the characters. It’s ambitious, it’s daring, and in places I found it very exciting. I repeat, I may be the wrong person to comment because I don’t know the Pergolesi well enough to know what’s being reproduced and what’s altered. We saw and heard some marvelous performances, and I’m very grateful for what I enjoyed. But I’m not going to talk about that, as my main responsibility is to look at the workshop as an exploration of text.

What might be missing for me is something that likely would seem alien to the participants in this project. Rossini’s “cuius animam” is a proudly celebratory piece, bold and confident, an attitude you don’t find in the piece we heard yesterday. To the participants, I must sound totally out of touch, in what I’m saying. I’m also recalling such pieces as the “hostias” or the “ingemisco” in Verdi’s Requiem, both pieces that show vulnerability and anguish but also something triumphant and affirming.

I believe the intention (expressed by Nichols in her introductory talk) was to explore ideas of trauma and suffering in Mary and in Jesus. I should mention also that I’m currently reading the recent book by Gabor Maté The myth of normal: trauma, illness and healing in a toxic culture. His latest opus exploring the relationship between trauma and disease seems really timely under the circumstances (I say that having read fewer than 100 pages). I suspect there has been a great deal of exploration of subtexts by Jennifer, Adam and David working with the cast and the musicians, that went into what we saw (now in the third week of the workshop): but I can only speculate.

There was lots to admire, lots of beauty in this workshop. I hope we get to see it in its next incarnation.

I chose this image from Jennifer Nichols’ Facebook page because it suggests the energy without showing the faces: a perfect metaphor for what we saw (photo:  Mike McClung)
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